“The earlier albums were better”

Today’s the first time I realized that I tend to prefer the earlier albums by musicians/bands, even when I’m introduced to those albums later. (There are a few exceptions.) This is a remarkable pattern and seems to be pretty common among people who listen to music.

Is this pattern explained by something in people’s ears, or by something in the career arcs of musicians?

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11 thoughts on ““The earlier albums were better”

      • But do most professional musicians really run out of ideas? Do even a substantial portion? I doubt it.

        Help me understand: what do you mean by “ideas”? What do you envision is the relationship between “ideas” and the popularity of a song or recording?

  1. It’s something in the career arc of musicians. The first album might easily contain ten years worth of ideas – the best songs you had been able to write in your _entire life_ prior to that point. The second album starts out with any leftover ideas that weren’t thought *quite* good enough for the first album and then adds a few other new songs written since then to fill it out – that might still be good, especially if the *production* side has improved from the experience of recording the first one.

    After that second album you’ve drained the reserve tank and have to think of actual new stuff. If the ideas in the first album took a decade to develop and you aren’t willing to wait a full TEN YEARS between each subsequent one, you have less time invested in thinking about stuff per album. That’s a problem.

    A second and independent factor is that people’s lives change over time. When you were writing the first album you had OTHER JOBS besides being a musician and those jobs provided material to write about, as did the struggle to survive, the struggle to be noticed, and any romantic conflicts along the way.

    But then you become a successful musician. You might be married now with less relationship drama. You spend all your time in interchangeable buses and hotel rooms and clubs playing the same songs off that first album over and over and over again. Audiences cheer the hits they’ve been hypnotized to love by incessant radio and home play. They are less enthusiastic about your new stuff and having to play the old stuff so much takes up space in your brain leaving less space to fill with new stuff. Success tends to mean fewer problems; it’s hard to write a song about the successful-musician life that really resonates with your fan base. A punk or country or metal artist might start out living – or at least knowing people living – something resembling a punk, country, or metal life like their fans do, but later on they have to work harder to stay in touch with that.

    A third factor is that part of what makes a band great is a NOVELTY factor. What they had to say was once new and fresh and relevant to what else was going on at the time, later not so much – James Taylor or Arlo Guthrie might continue to be who they are, but who they are is less surprising now that we know them and have been influenced by them. Relatively few artists are willing and able to “reinvent” themselves to the degree of Bowie, Madonna, Prince, or Bob Dylan.

    A fourth factor is age. One certainly *can* stay highly creative and experimental into later life, but relatively few of us *do*. We tend to find the rut that fits us best and then stay in it.

  2. There’s also a massive selection bias issue here. Let us suppose most albums suck; great albums are relatively rare. If the first album is *terrible* it might not even get commercially released; if it’s okay but mediocre and unpopular they’ll get dropped by the label before they have a chance to record many more. So the set of bands you’ve actually heard of is mostly the set of bands whose early albums were sufficiently great as to be self-recommending – good enough to generate good word-of-mouth and a career and studios willing to risk money on funding more work, which is to say these are bands whose early albums were *really unusually great* compared to the average album out there. Regression to the mean alone says later albums might be less great than that.

    • That sounds like a reasonable explanation. So then, how do musicians hone their craft, knowing that they’re fighting this uphill battle against these kinds of forces? How can they reconcile this reality with what they think in their heads about continuous improvement? Or maybe they don’t.

      • I think I object to some of the premises of that question. Do you have survey data or something contending musicians have a particular thought in their heads about continuous improvement?

        People become musicians because they have something to say, they enjoy performing, and they are either *ridiculously optimistic* about their chance of success or have no better *other option* than trying it. I don’t think anybody becomes a musician based on the premise that each album they make will be better than the last one. Musicians often do like their own latest album best, but I attribute that mainly to novelty – they’re not sick of playing those songs yet. Also the latest album better reflects what ideas they’re currently playing with and who they are at that moment. But what they’re *famous for* remains the earlier stuff.

        You can get better at guitar or singing or writing over time but there are diminishing returns to that – the biggest jumps are near the beginning of the career. (You can impress *other musicians* more with more practice, but the bar for “good enough for people to enjoy hearing it* is pretty low.)

        Once you have some hit albums, you are heavily invested in continuing to be a musician – there is competitive advantage to staying one versus doing other things.

        As a musician, what goes into the what you present to the audience is *who you are* – the sum of your experiences and influences. That changes less, percentage-wise, as you age. So even if the later songs are really really good they’re likely to seem derivative – they are expressing similar musical and thematic ideas as your earlier work. (A popular hack to change a bit more than that is to bring in outside producers who have different musical sensibilities than yours and/or borrow from neighboring genres, but that, too, has diminishing returns. Paul Simon’s _Graceland_ added a “world music” influence he hadn’t had at all in his work before, but most musicians make a move like that *once* – they don’t keep doing it over and over again.)

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